Culture

Why We Need More Literature About Intersectionality and Young Women

Photo by Omar Lopez on Unsplash

Two anthologies provide space to girls and women to articulate the realities of lives where “femaleness” is supposed to be the preeminent part of one’s identity. In the case of Can We All Be Feminists?, women write of how assumptions about a preeminent need to overcome misogyny contributes to other forms of oppression, while in Girls Write Now, girls growing up in the new millennium write their observations of first experiences that help to define who they are.

The women who contributed to the anthology edited by June Eric-Udorie, Can We All Be Feminists? all believe that men and women should have equal rights before the law and that discrimination against women based solely on their biological sex is ethically wrong and should be illegal in democratic societies. This makes them all feminists by definition.

Their identities as women of color, or women with disabilities, or fat women, or Muslim women, or immigrants, or trans women, or lesbians — or some combination of these identities — makes them chafe against mainstream feminism. Each of them have recognized that feminism, while bucking the traditional philosophies of male supremacy, has not examined how much of traditional feminism has taken for granted its white identity. If a white woman believes that the greatest force for inequality is based in gender, then she does not have to pay attention to the ways that racism, xenophobia, homophobia, religious intolerance, and able-ism also produce forms of oppression that must be negotiated by other women. When a lesbian woman who is Black experiences discrimination, that bias could be located in her gender, her sexuality, or the color of her skin.

In her introduction, June Eric-Udorie introduces some of the ways in which white feminism fails to take into account the additional oppressions faced by other women. She argues that calls for “sisterhood” requires “marginalized women to subsume part of our identities in service of the battle for gender equality.” So when feminism focuses on lesser issues — manspreading, for example — that frivolity feels offensive to women who are facing very real oppressions tied to their race, sexuality, or disability. When white women assume that they are speaking for all women, they ignore the circumstances that are outside of white women’s experiences but have enormous impacts on other women’s lives.

Even with issues that affect all women — such as sexual violence — the solutions that are proposed may cause greater oppression for the women they are intended to help. If white women claim that the solution to sexual violence is to increase police presence on the street, they do so ignoring the history of police violence against men and women of color. The case of Sandra Bland, a Black woman who died in police custody after being jailed over a traffic stop, is one example of how a Black woman may not feel safer because of an increased police presence. Or if white women insist that a woman who is a victim of domestic violence should always call the police, they ignore the experiences of immigrant women, many of whom have visas to stay in the country because they are married to their residency sponsor. What recourse does a victimized immigrant woman have if having her husband arrested means that she can be deported? Or when certain feminists insist that prostitution should be banned, do they consider the voices of sex workers who advocate for the decriminalization of consensual sexual activity, even paying for sex?

Mainstream feminism reflects, for the most part, the goals and demands of privileged white women. While some of the actions taken are the products of neglect, rather than deliberate, oppressive policies, feminism has a history in which it has allied itself with the oppressors in order to win for itself its goals. One of the great moments of shame in the history of white feminism had been its racism, as demonstrated by American suffragettes who demanded that white women be granted the vote because their “social inferiors” — men of color — had been granted the right to vote by the Fifteenth Amendment. Elizabeth Cady Stanton urged the New York State Legislature not to ratify the amendment on the basis that white women should have the vote just as their husbands and brothers did. When she advocated votes for women, she meant white women, and she didn’t include Black women in this demand.

And while the suffragettes argued from a racist position over a century ago, mainstream feminists still exclude women on the basis of other women’s identities. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Betty Friedan and other feminists founded the National Organization for Women (NOW), and Friedan insisted that lesbians could not be part of the movement. She argued that lesbians had an “agenda” that would derail the feminist movement, and that if too many “mannish lesbians” were associated with feminism, feminists wouldn’t be taken seriously by men. The desire to continue to reap the benefits of association with white men underlay Friedan’s, and other prominent feminists’ attempt to write lesbians out of the feminist movement.

Now, some of the most radical of the feminists, women such as Germaine Greer, author of The Female Eunuch, have demonstrated their own unwillingness to expand feminism to include the Trans community. Greer argues that a man who has “enjoyed” the benefits of being a man for most of his life cannot claim to be a woman because she is transgender. The term trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) has been used to describe feminists who don’t believe that trans women are women. And women who hold these views have fought back by arguing that being called TERFs is a form of hate speech.

But it’s not just white feminists who exclude trans women, as the essay, “Borderlands” by Gabrielle Bellot, explores. Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie, whose writings on feminism and her experiences as a Black Nigerian woman living in America have garnered international acclaim, said in an interview that trans women benefit from male privilege. Bellot writes, “Men were socialized as men, Adichie argued, and women as women, and socialization determined who one was, so a transgender woman socialized as a man could never, ever be a woman.” Bellot offers a number of reasons that she believes Adichie is wrong, but for Bellot, the remarks by a feminist whose work she had previously learned from and looked up to, felt personal. Bellot details the “borderlands” position she occupies in relation to being a woman of color and being a feminist. I felt the poignancy of her position when she writes, “This is the sadness, subtle and salient as petrichor, of being a trans woman of color: never knowing if we will fit in, and always knowing there is somewhere we will not.”

Brit Bennett’s essay, “Body and Blood,” explores how difficult it is to inhabit a body that is Black and female and Christian. Christianity has always insisted that human beings are divided between body and spirit, and that in all ways, the spirit is superior to the body. The body is the vessel in which the spirit is temporarily housed, but the body is also the means by which sin is committed. It is the body’s desires that lead it away from God. But, as a Black woman, Bennett already inhabits a body that is seen as inferior by a culture that privileges whiteness. And to be female is also to possess a body that is perceived to be inferior to that of the male, and, in fact, the female body is often held to be responsible for the sins of men. As a girl, she learned that her body was “uniquely vulnerable and uniquely dangerous.” Forty percent of Black women are sexually abused before the age of eighteen, but she learned on a regular basis that women’s bodies were a source of trouble. “To live in a Black female body is to be caught within both racialized and gendered violence, to occupy a body that is both scared and scary. So I learned to police myself.”

Frances Ryan explores the space inhabited by women with disabilities. She points to the various ways in which the assumption of being able-bodied informs some of the goals of feminist ideology. For example, feminists worked hard to make the medical establishment pay attention to breast cancer, arguing successfully that a cancer that affected such a high number of women needed to be the focus of research and fundraising dollars. But those same feminists did not take into consideration accessibility for women whose bodies are unable to access mammogram machines. Feminists push women to take responsibility for their health, but they haven’t taken into account how a disabled woman might not be able to lie on the examining table where a Pap smear is taken. And when feminists push for the right of all women to make a choice about whether they will carry a pregnancy to term, they have used the argument that couples have a right to abort fetuses that show disabilities in the womb. Thus, aborting “disabled’ fetuses brings disability activists into direct conflict with feminists. The rhetoric of abortion rights “perpetuates harmful beliefs around disability that still largely associate it with negativity, failure, or something to be avoided at all costs.”

Each of the essays contained in the anthology explores why feminism that focuses solely on misogyny is an incomplete feminism. What feminism needs to be is “intersectional,” the term first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the experience of multiple oppressions. In order for feminism to be successful, it has to take into account how other oppressions curtail the lives of women, and that feminism must work to eradicate all forms of oppression if it is to make the lives of all women better. None of the writers denies that misogyny and patriarchy make women’s lives difficult; what is clear, however, is that feminism cannot hope to dismantle the patriarchy without also dismantling the multiple oppressions that makes patriarchy possible.

The young women in Girls Write Now write of experiences that help them to name who they are. The girls are part of an organization, Girls Write Now in which girls are mentored and taught how to tell their stories. “[E]very girl who’s passionate about telling their story gets a shot at exploring it,” its website declares, and the chance to write is offered through courses, and through the mentoring by professional women writers and media makers. Girls are given the chance to not only be creative, but also to have their creativity nurtured by a woman who knows the kinds of barriers that are still faced by women who want to write.

The stories and essays contained in the anthology are a palette of experiences, hopes, and dreams of a diverse sisterhood. Girls offer stories about moments when a life changed, or about a tiny moment when a diamond-size piece of knowledge lodged itself in a consciousness. They offer stories about their mothers, recognizing the ways that their moms tried to shape them, or the sacrifices their mothers made on behalf of their daughters. Immigrant daughters write about the courage of women who moved thousands of miles in search of a better life. Other girls write about moments with their grandmothers, where they received the benefit of an older woman’s knowledge. Or they write about those coming-of-age moments: first bras, first periods, first dates, first dance but also the first time they traveled across the city by themselves, or took their first dance class, or their first failure, first broken heart, first fight with their mother.

The two anthologies provide lovely complements to each other. The experiences of the younger girls become the sources of knowledge used to offer critiques of feminism. Reading about the challenges faced by young teen women grappling with their sexuality, or understanding how their ethnicity or disability causes people to see them differently, will inform readers who seek to understand the panoply of viewpoints that make up the philosophy of feminism.